For me the experience of blowing the Shofar is all about a lack of control.
Before I get to my issues, let’s begin with an Elul custom: hearing a daily call and hearing of the Shofar blast. These brief daily Shofar blasts offer us a taste and a hint of the great, resounding calls that await us on Rosh Hashanah. There are many aspects of the Shofar upon which to wax philosophical: its unique sound; the nature of the notes that are ‘played’, the origin, history and symbolism of the Shofar – all which I imagine might become fodder for another post down the road. But, before I can get to conjuring all of that interpretation and spin, I must address my own Shofar-related incompetence.
I often joke that I missed the day in rabbinic school during which proper Shofar blowing technique was addressed. (For that matter, there seem to be a few important days of rabbinic school that I seem to have missed!) Now, it is not as if I can’t make any sound with the Shofar. I simply cannot get it to make the sound that I want it to make. I can do what I am instructed. I hold the Shofar at the right angle and with the right amount of pressure to my lips. I can use the proper lip formation and apply acceptable amounts of breath. I can even hear in my mind the way the different calls (tekia, shvarim, teruah) are supposed to sound. In the end, despite doing all of these proper things … I cannot control what comes out the other end of that $#%*! ram’s horn!
And beneath the sounds of those pathetic squeaks and squawks emitting from my Shofar, I hear the soft mocking of an old Yiddush proverb: Mentsch tracht, Gott lacht. Man plans, God laughs. No matter what sounds I think should be emanating from this ram’s horn or what I think I deserve to have ascend from it, the nature of the actual sounds seem beyond my control. Here is something that I clearly cannot control. Each year the re-emergence of the Shofar taunts me: reminding me about things I can control and what I cannot control and – not so gently – nudges me to consider my limitations.
Many people may have never seen, yet less picked up a Shofar and tried to manufacture the sharp, rich sounds that can be heard from it. Nonetheless, each person experiences moments (possibly just earlier today) when she or he felt that all of the correct things were said or done – to only find that outcome to be dramatically different (and possibly painful, annoying or maddening) than intended. Perhaps the call of the Shofar – the one we listen to with more than our ears – intends to call our attention to limitations and possibilities. It bids us to partake once again in Teshuvah, the act of returning to our Truths. During this process of Teshuvah we remember: who we are, what we can do, what we cannot do and what will will do about all of the above.
Open up your ears and hearts and minds, because Elul and its Shofar has arrived. It’s taking names and kickin’ butt – challenging each of us to listen up and pay attention to what the Shofar has to say.